For years, my friends and I have line-fished on Beara Peninsula, practising ‘catch and release’, but stocks are being ruinously depleted by gillnetting from boats, says Ashley Hayden.
First cast a line on the Beara peninsula in May 2005, close to the Dursey cable car. The line was a 32g silver Kilty catcher. After a count of forty seconds — yes, Dursey sound is that deep — I hit mackerel. I have returned often, more than once a year, and on one such trip I met Roger Ball, on the rocks at Garnish.
We have been friends and fellow anglers since. That friendship centered around sea fishing, soccer, and a love of the bountiful marine paradise that was the rich coastal waters off Beara. But those waters are under attack, from within.
Roger and his friend Dave Hoskins have been travelling from the United Kingdom to Beara for years, for longer than I have. Roger came first in 1997. Both he and Dave are Cornishmen, and they talk about how good the fishing was in the 1970s around Plymouth, where they grew up, and how it was destroyed by overfishing.
When Roger happened upon Beara, in 1997, while he was driving around Ireland on holidays, he thought that he had landed in heaven, for there were vast shoals of open sea mullet, his favourite fish to catch. From then on, he returned most years to walk the dogs along coastal paths with his wife and to fish.
Roger, Dave, and I have extensive experience of fishing the shore from Dunboy in Castletownberehaven around to Urhan, close to Eyeries. Fishing mainly from rock platforms, we have caught 19 species of fish, ranging from bass to wrasse. What amazed us was how many of the resident species, such as conger, wrasse, pollack, bull huss, mullet, plaice and dab, grew to their full size and also the numbers of fish that were available, which was staggering in this era of over-fishing at sea.
Each year, when we returned, the fishing was as good as, if not better than, the time before. Yes, our improved catches were partly predicated on our knowledge of the area, but the quality of fish and fishing was unchanged for 17 years.
That is until 2014, when the mullet were not as plentiful and the average size of pollack and wrasse on the marks that we fished began to shrink. Then, the clean ground marks, which were paved with large dab up to specimen size, began to produce less fish. Were we imagining this or were we losing our touch at fishing? No, we were doing neither. A recent trip, unfortunately, revealed everything that we had suspected.
On the Saturday, we arrived at our holiday cottage, all geared up for a week’s fishing.
On the way, we had supped Guinness in McCarthy’s Bar, Castletownbere, devoured bowls of Adrienne’s lovely chowder with brown bread, and dug fleshy lugworms for our intended ground-fishing session. The weather was poor — strong south to south-east winds and rain — but we persevered, lure-fishing with spinners to catch a few medium-size pollack (but no mackerel) on the first evening.
Sunday was a washout. Things improved on Monday, enough for us to seek out mullet and shore fish locally again for pollack, but the mackerel and mullet were again absent. A couple from Northern Ireland, who were fishing on a favoured mark near our cottage, mentioned how they had been traveling down to the area for years to fish, but that on the last number of visits there had been a perceptible decline in the fishing. Might it just be an aberration? No, they said, it was the gillnetters.
My heart sank, as this is what Roger, Dave, and I had always suspected, but could not prove. The evidence was there: smaller fish sizes, dearth of mullet and flatfish. The Tuesday confirmed this.
With full tide around 11.30am, we hiked out onto the headland to a favourite mark that traditionally produces plenty of large pollack and wrasse. At this mark, without fail, rods on the first cast doubled over to quality pollack hitting jelly worms.
Numerous casts later, we were fishless, before a couple of juvenile pollack hit our lures. Something was dreadfully amiss. Roger decided to wrasse fish and, yes, he had bites to hardback crab from the get-go, but not from the mothers that we used to catch. Instead, their half-pound offspring made up the offering.
Then we saw why. The half-decker tootled across the bay, and lined up 80m offshore, before shooting its net right across our casting line. It had taken us an hour to walk out and now we could not fish, as this gillnet (we could see it slipping over the stern of the boat) was well within our casting range. A crew member lifted up a good-size pollack and taunted us with it, smiling as he motored by.
The boatmen, operating perfectly legally, did not even have the wit to consider that it was tourists from another country that they were mocking. Those same tourists are long-term friends and admirers of the Beara; tourists who sing its praises and encourage others to consider visiting; tourists who come twice a year; tourists who contribute to the local economy by spending money on accommodation, on food and drink in O’Neill’s of Allihies, in McCarthy’s Bar, on groceries and other necessities in Supervalu, and on fuel at the local petrol station, etc.
Now we knew the source of decline and it created a sick feeling in the stomach, a feeling of helplessness, because Roger, Dave, and I all knew what would be the final outcome of the action we were observing: the total annihilation of the fishery.
Gillnetters are doing nothing wrong according to Irish law, but nobody will stop this violation of a pristine marine biosphere. I couldn’t continue fishing and told the lads I was heading back. They hung on for a while, but eventually followed. Our hearts were not in it.
For years, we had respected this place: we caught and we released, and perhaps kept an odd fish for the pot. Our angling was a conduit, a way to connect with nature and give something back in return. We told stories of basking sharks, watched dolphins playing tag, gannets diving, the sea alive with flashing fish. We left a few bob in various local businesses.
On that Tuesday, modern life caught up with paradise and chewed it up. From 1997 until 2014, the shore fishing between Crow Head and Cod’s Head, to include Dursey, had never changed. It was consistent and always surprised us with its abundance. To witness the mullet shoals was in itself incredible, when they merged with mackerel and sprat. The spectacle was like something from the Blue Planet BBC wildlife TV series. This will happen no more. Before 2014, gillnetting, using, in this instance, a net approximately 500m long (a legal practice), did not occur in this area to the scale we now witness.
It first decimated the vast, resident mullet shoals and is now having a right go at the pollack, flatfish, and whatever else swims into their indiscriminate, invisible plastic meshes. To cap it all, the boat was targeting prime wrasse to be used as pot bait. What an ignominious end for a wonderful sport fish.
This writer comes from a family with coastal fishing in its bones. I was taught by my father, grandfather, and uncles how to dig bait, long line, trammel net, lay pots, tie knots, row boats, and understand the sea.
I was taught to respect the sea and respect the creatures within it. I was taught how to maintain a fishery by leaving some for tomorrow, and never to be greedy.
For if this plunder continues —which it will, unless there is government or EU intervention — there will be no adult fish left and the dynamic of a wonderful marine ecosystem, unique to Ireland, will be altered forever.
It would make you weep. In just five short years, the fishing has been severely damaged, though not as yet mortally.
But if it is not curtailed, the future for the coastal bays like those off Dursey Island and Allihies Bay is stark and I should know: I saw the incredible, mixed fishery off Greystones, Co Wicklow, disappear within 10 years, once the mussel-dredging commenced. However, there is still time for Dursey.
But people have to be informed and they must not be afraid to speak out. No-one is saying that local people in rural areas should not earn a contribution to their living from fishing. Community managed, sustainable, artisan inshore coastal fisheries are part of the solution to marine overfishing. However, in that context, no individual has the right to say that a shared resource is theirs alone, which is exactly what is happening on the Beara peninsula and at other such places around the Irish coastline.
The State has to be the catalyst for change by introducing radical, inclusive legislation, and by acknowledging that all citizens have a stake in the marine and not just those who fish commercially. The State should ban monofilament gill and tangle nets forthwith, as they are lethal, indiscriminate fishing engines.
They continue to fish as “ghost nets” if they are lost in storms and these same lost nets become major contributors to micro-plastic pollution when they eventually rot and break up.
Instead, artisan line fishing should be promoted and encouraged, as an inshore fishing methodology. It is more environmentally-friendly, less indiscriminate, and also delivers a higher quality end product for market.
Secondly, the targeting of ballan wrasse for pot bait should be banned immediately and fishermen/women should be encouraged to obtain carcasses and fish heads from fish-processing operations for pot bait, instead.
Thirdly, community-managed, marine protected zones should be established in key areas, such as the Beara, to protect and preserve wild places, nursery areas, habitats, and local ecosystems.
These are the foundation stones for the wider marine biosphere. These zones would not necessarily be “no take”, but most certainly would be “netfree”, with creeling (potting) allowed inside under a management plan, commercial line fishing outside along the perimeter — where the over-spill of prime fish would occur — and sea angling catch-and-release, using barbless hooks.
The above is a loose template, but it’s inclusive, which is key to the successful long-term management of Ireland’s coastal resources. The present model is predicated on taking, but giving nothing back. That path has led Ireland’s and the world’s marine fisheries to where they are today: broken and/or severely strained.
Meanwhile, those who make a living, or who contribute to their income, by fishing complain of a lack of fish, or of reduced access to fish, when, in actual fact, there are reduced numbers of fish, because of the methodologies and approach used by their industry.
The industry is shooting itself in the foot, while those who work within the sector point the finger at everybody but themselves as to why they cannot catch, or access, whatever fish are left. This race to the bottom breeds a mentality of take what you can while it is still there, before someone else gets it.
Given climate change, biodiversity loss, and societal musings on the value of natural capital and how humanity should utilise and harness nature into the future, how we interact with resources is vital. Changes in approach are essential.
Sadly, when it comes to what is left of sea fishing in rural areas, trying to introduce change is akin to sucking blood out of a stone. The same old cliches will be trotted out with vehemence: it’s our resource, we looked after it, it’s what we have always done. Compromise, by which where everybody benefits, will be a dirty word, but that is what we must do.
So, if you have been moved by this article, or even angered by it, please send a letter or email to the minister for fisheries, minister for tourism, environmental NGOs, Inland Fisheries Ireland, the CEO of Failte Ireland, and anybody else you can think of who might make a difference at a national decision-making level, calling for protection of our wild marine places, the adoption of environmentally-friendly fishing methodologies and practices, and recognition of all stakeholders when it comes to resource use management. Your efforts could just make a difference.
Ashley Hayden set up the website, anirishanglersworld.com, in 2008, to highlight marine conservation issues and promote Irish angling.